What can architecture tell us about who we may choose to become today? Tomorrow? How may we choose to define our collective futures? In many ways a direct continuation of the work of his profoundly well-researched 2020 tome “Modern in the Middle” (Monacelli Press), the exhibition “Outside the Box: Modern and Contemporary Houses in Riverside” extends and refocuses Michelangelo Sabatino’s intellectual cataloging and visual taxonomic impulses. Co-curated with Kim Freeark, who operates the Freeark Gallery next door to the Riverside Arts Center (which it shares back garden space with) the opening was as much a community convening as a reception. It makes sense in Riverside, a wealthy suburban planned community based on the designs of world-renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted’s firm, Olmstead and Vaux. Hundreds attended the opening, spilling out across the block and eventually gathering en masse into that back garden when it came time to hear the curators speak.
A relatively diminutive space, the white rectangle that is the Riverside Arts Center interior is hung with a ring of stellar architectural photographs by the talented and fastidious Will Quam, who has produced artworks of civic portraiture of the homes and structures that are the subject of the exhibition. The pictures become an homage of one artist to another, and recover in the moment the work of these perhaps lesser-known architects who nonetheless served to expand and advance the Moderne and contemporary vocabulary on display.
There are wonders to behold while wending the curvilinear streets and pastoral boulevards: the expanses of lawn alone serve as plazas surrounding some central monument to the interiority of private life, occasionally nestled into exurb outbursts of forest. Nothing like it exists in the city or its near suburbs, where mansions are often designed for available space, or the further North Shore, of the great wealth viewed by Fitzgerald that inspired the milieu of Gatsby. There’s more range, for example, in 111 Longcommon Road’s Belli & Belli-designed converted convent, with its twinkling façade of gridded blue glass bricks. There’s Michelangelo’s own exquisite asymmetrical Winston Elting-designed cubist brick and wood home at 211 Southcote Road, both minor marvels. Up against these are also a short list of International Style examples with no architects named, carrying on today as more modest outlines of the influences that transformed the area.
In the indispensable Dan Streeting-designed catalog accompanying the exhibit (Streeting is also Newcity’s art director), regardless of their renown, each house is given proper architectural attribution and some written histories through which to get a handle on the thirty single-family houses that are included. Some offer only a few sentences to attest to their contributions, but there are also instances of amusement and revelation, as when Michelangelo tells the story of the Moderne structure at 505 Berkeley Road, where “notorious mob hit man Felix ‘Milwaukee Phil’ Alderisio lived” for years, “until his arrest in 1969.” Nestled behind the shrubbery and hedgerows, the stately structure’s first-floor windows were outfitted with bulletproof glass and the roof crowned with “tooth-like” dentil molding. Its present owners, he writes, “want to keep the house as close to its current form as possible, which is why the firearms cabinet now proudly displays their chinaware.”
It goes on like this. It is as if the curators had simply rolled all this splendor and wondrous detail into an exhibition itself much too small to contain its subjects—there’s an impulse to want these photographs at some semblance of architectural scale—and for that, leaves the viewer wanting. But there’s also a more sublime absence, perhaps best defined by the section in Michelangelo’s introductory essay on the Henninger Rexall Drug Store, now gone, “the first vitrolite and neon façade,” that served as a functional “boost to Riverside’s modernity during the first half of the nineteenth century.” It’s a sad realization, in the midst of all this splendor, that a community could care so distinctly for architecture, to a point. Taken as a whole, this exhibition’s lovingly rendered photography and the considered, pavement-pounding research that serve to define it also transports its subject beyond the cozy confines into a space of deeper reflection on architecture, history and the at times perhaps insular criteria we may choose to apply when defining civic value.
“Outside the Box: Modern and Contemporary Houses in Riverside” is on view at the Riverside Arts Center through October 21.
Michael Workman is an artist, writer, dance, performance art and sociocultural critic, theorist, dramaturge, choreographer, reporter, poet, novelist, curator, manager and promoter of numerous art, literary and theatrical productions. In addition to his work at The Guardian and Newcity, Workman has also served as a reporter for WBEZ Chicago Public Radio, and as Chicago correspondent for Italian art magazine Flash Art. He is currently producing exhibitions, films and recordings, dance and performance art events under his curatorial umbrella, Antidote Projects. Michael has lectured widely at universities including Northwestern University, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and The University of Illinois at Chicago, and served as advisor to curators of the Whitney Biennial. His reporting, criticism and other writing has appeared in New Art Examiner, the Chicago Reader, zingmagazine, and Contemporary magazine, among others, and his projects have been written about in Artforum, The New York Times, Artnet, The Financial Times, The Huffington Post, The Times of London, The Art Newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, Art In America, Time Out NY, Chicago and London, The Gawker, ARTINFO, Flavorpill, The Chicago Tribune, NYFA Current, The Frankfurter Algemeine, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Village Voice, Monopol, and numerous other news media, art publications and countless blog, podcast and small press publishing outlets throughout the years.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: michael-workman.com